IMDB description: “Two couples rent a vacation home for what should be a celebratory weekend get-away.”
Why I Took It Off the List
OK, so this is not exactly a ‘one that got away’ because it just came out around a month ago, but it’s exactly the kind of film that’s right up my alley – the kind of decently reviewed horror-thriller that tends to fly under the radar.
Other than the positive reviews (including from Stephen King!) and solid cast, the fact that Dave Franco, best known for his frat-boy acting in popular comedies, was directing a horror-thriller intrigued me. I was in the mood for a good thriller so decided to take a peek.
Not many. I only added this to my list earlier in the year, and wasn’t sure what to expect from the directorial debut of James Franco’s brother. The elder Franco’s prolific filmography as a director ranges from the competent (The Disaster Artist (2017), Child of God (2013) to the slap-dash (pretty much everything else he has churned out in the last few years) so I felt it could go either way.
Nevertheless, the cast, set-up, and atmospherics of the film all looked solid from the trailer and the fact that veteran indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg co-wrote the script inspired confidence.
Spoilers? I’ve largely tried to avoid spoilers in this review in favor of vague descriptions of what to expect, so you should be good!
Review of The Rental
The premise of The Rental is essentially one of those old-fashioned horror set-ups where a bunch of oblivious ‘city folks’ decide to go on a country retreat, only for it to go horribly wrong. Not exactly an original story within the genre.
However, the film is set apart by a few outstanding elements, particularly the perfectly cast actors at the center of the story.
Sheila Vand, so great in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), which I reviewed on Day 8, is emphatic and believable, as Mina, a young Iranian-American professional who becomes the audience surrogate early on.
She is the first in the group of holidaymakers to feel unease after an Airbnb request under her Middle-Eastern surname is denied, only for it to be immediately approved for a white co-worker. Her growing sense of dread as the plot progresses is palpable, and Vand’s expressive swings from vulnerability to steely reserve to despair are captivating to watch.
The always likable Alison Brie, Franco’s wife in real life, brings much of the same manically optimistic energy that she displayed in her role as Trudy on Mad Men (2007-2015) while adding multiple sympathetic layers to her character.
Dan Stevens, who was effectively sinister as a mysterious outsider in The Guest (2011) plays an equally self-assured but much more arrogant and yuppie-esque character here with the same degree of success, you really love to hate the guy.
Toby Huss, who I remember fondly from his excellent turn as the patriarch of a family of carnies in the sadly short-lived HBO series Carnivàle (2003-2005), also turns in an impressively subtle performance as a low-key variation on that old horror trope: the red-neck local.
Another element that really elevates The Rental is the moody, atmospheric cinematography by D.P. Christian Sprenger: the rental property and the surrounding grounds are bathed in an eye-catching moody blue that accentuates the palpable sense of dread.
The house itself is also well-chosen and stands out as a character in its own right: the clifftop setting combined the homely wooden interiors really give the sense that this idyllic retreat could give way to disaster at any time.
Much of the tension in the first part of the film, and the script generates plenty, comes from the simmering tension in the dynamic between the two inter-related couples, which are subtly telegraphed but always in danger of bubbling to the surface.
What’s most impressive about the script are the modern touches that it brings to the character’s dilemma; the afore-mentioned racial tensions, the casual presence of party drugs on the getaway, and, most predominately, the paranoia associated with staying in somebody’s else house in our digital world.
The escalating unease between the group as secrets and lies are gradually uncovered is well-developed and well-paced, and holds up under scrutiny until the end thanks to the believable performances of all involved.
Where The Rental starts to fall down for me is in the very last scene, with the film coming to a rather abrupt conclusion that is unlikely to satisfy those looking for a more conventional and decisive ending.
This final scene, and the sort-of-explanation that follows over the end credits, are clearly trying to make a point and promote audience discussion and feels similar to the button-pushing in some Michael Haneke films like Caché (2005) but for me came across as a bit unsatisfying.
The film also lacks some of the fun and satirical bite of the best home invasion thrillers, like, You’re Next (2011), and the dread-filled journey of the characters can occasionally feel a bit too gloomy for its own good. Saying that, though, it’s still an immensely watchable film and a decent first stab at directing from Franco.
Final Score: 6/10
Worth Checking Out?
It depends. Fans of character-driven thrillers like The Strangers (2008) and great acting should definitely check out The Rental, although those looking for a thrill-minute horror with a conventional conclusion should probably look elsewhere.
The Rental (2020)
Directed by Dave Franco
Written by Dave Franco, Joe Swanberg
I’m taking a bit of a break from blogging as I’m heading off on holiday for a few weeks (avoiding any Airbnbs after this film!), but check back in mid-September for my next review!